The deputy leader of the Nationals Party is facing calls to stand down. She’s called the claims against her “ridiculous”. The scandal? Well, it involves giant cheques, sausage sizzles, and sports clubs around the nation.
Welcome to a day in the life of Senator Bridget McKenzie, who has been accused of siphoning huge amounts of taxpayer funds into projects benefiting marginal seats before last year’s federal election.
Here’s the situation: on Wednesday, the nation’s Auditor-General Grant Hehir slammed former federal sports minister McKenzie for “bias” in handling of an enormous community grant scheme.
— Audit Office (ANAO) (@ANAO_Australia) January 15, 2020
The Community Sports Infrastructure Grant was designed to pump cash into local sporting clubs, with the hopes of raising participation levels at the grassroots level. 684 applicants were successful, resulting in $100 million in funding divvied up over three rounds. Successful applicants copped up to $500,000 a pop to renovate facilities, improve playing surfaces, and generally upgrade their institutions.
That’s all well and good, but the auditor-general found… well, some anomalies.
In its report, the auditor found that hundreds of grant applications given the thumbs up by Sports Australia were neglected by McKenzie, who instead ran a “parallel” assessment process. That process appears to have favoured applicants in “marginal” or “targeted” seats before the 2019 election.
“Applications from projects located in those electorates were more successful in being awarded funding than if funding was allocated on the basis of merit assessed against the published program guidelines,” the report found.
So, the auditor-general suggests McKenzie directed a firehose of cash at seats the Coalition desperately wanted to win – and, of course, the Coalition did experience a miraculous victory.
The report lit a fire under the arse of the Labor Party, who have issued calls for McKenzie, who is currently the Minister for Agriculture, to resign from parliament.
“There is no doubt Bridget McKenzie needs to go,” Labor MP Tony Burke told reporters yesterday.
“You can’t get a report like that and remain a minister in the Commonwealth.”
Shadow Minister for Sport, Don Farrell, had this to say:
Bridget McKenzie rejected hundreds of eligible sports grant applications so she could misuse taxpayers' $ in her…
McKenzie came out swinging at those calls, defending her selection criteria and denying a big ol’ case of pork-barreling (that is, guiding public money to projects which would benefit a re-election campaign.)
“If anything, there’s a case of reverse pork-barrelling going on,” she said, pointing to the disbursement of funds to Labor electorates.
“Rather than parents having to sausage sizzle at Bunnings on a Saturday, this project actually sought to put much-needed funds into local sporting clubs,” she added, calling Burke’s demands “ridiculous”.
As for the giant cheques? Well, that’s literal as well as metaphorical. Last year, this whole scheme was dragged into the spotlight when Georgina Downer, who was a Liberal Party challenger for the SA seat of Mayo, presented a giant $127,000 cheque with her face on it to a local bowls club.
The money actually came from the taxpayer as part of the Community Sports Infrastructure Grant – not Downer personally, nor the Liberal Party.
She didn’t win that election race FYI. Judging by McKenzie’s refusal to stand down after the auditor-general’s report, it doesn’t seem she wants to join Downer outside of parliament after her own sporting scandal.Image: Mick Tsikas / AAP Image